Vikings reload staff by hiring former Akron coach Jackson, promoting Zoeckler

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When Cleveland State abruptly lost two assistant coaches at the end of June, much later in the offseason than is typical for such changes, it put the program in a tough position. Fortunately for the Vikings, most of what they needed to address the situation was already in Northeast Ohio.

Specifically, Cleveland State announced on Tuesday that Director of Basketball Operations Shelby Zoeckler has been promoted to assistant coach. Additionally, CSU has hired Melissa Jackson as an assistant coach, joining Zoeckler and mainstay Frozena Jerro to fill out Chris Kielsmeier’s three assistant spots.

Jackson is new to the university, though she’s certainly not new to local women’s basketball after spending 15 seasons at the University of Akron, the last five as the Zips’ head coach. Her overall record was 72-69, but trending upward with a 17-12 mark in 2021-22, followed by a 2022-23 that began 12-2 and saw UA creep within the top 120 of the NET rankings. Nevertheless, roughly five weeks after that point, the university announced that her contract would not be renewed, and the Zips wound up 17-13 (8-10 Mid-American Conference).

As with the dismissal of current Detroit Mercy coach Kate Achter by Loyola Chicago the year before, much of the basketball world was a bit stunned by the news. When Ball State eliminated Akron from the MAC Tournament on March 8th, Jackson’s final game in blue and gold, Cardinals head coach Brady Sallee opined, unprompted, that “Melissa is an absolute pro, we need her in our game.”

“I hate the circumstances,” he continued. “I don’t fully understand them, but I’m telling you, she’s one of the good things about women’s basketball. She’s done it the right way, and she’s been successful, and I’ve got a lot of respect for Melissa Jackson, her staff, her players. I think every coach in our league is sick at the fact that she’s not going to be there. I know she’s as good as we have in our league and she’ll be on a sideline making someone else’s team really, really good, like she’s done at Akron.”

He may have been alluding to a complaint filed against Jackson by a former Akron player last summer that lurked in the background of the 2022-23 season and possibly played some role in her fate at the school. However, the specifics of that complaint never became public, Jackson was never suspended or disciplined in any way (as one imagines would happen if the accusations cleared a certain level of severity, or if more than one player came forward), and the investigation was closed as moot when her contract ended.

Effusive quotes like those offered by Sallee usually aren’t entirely about things that transpire on the court, but it probably didn’t hurt that during her tenure in the Rubber City, Jackson led the Zips to a pair of postseason tournaments as a head coach, including the 2019 Women’s Basketball Invitational (WBI) and the 2021 Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT). During her decade as an assistant on Jodi Kest’s staff prior to that, she made five additional postseason trips, highlighted by a 2014 MAC championship and NCAA Tournament bid, but also including three more WNIT trips and a WBI. Between 2012-13 and 2015-16, Akron averaged nearly 22 wins per season and made four consecutive trips to the top two postseason championships.

The Hazleton, PA native has primarily worked with guards during her career – she was one herself, at Richmond from 2000-04 – and her time at UA was dotted with several backcourt sharpshooters like Taylor Ruper, Hanna Luburgh, and Hannah Plybon. She also coached a bevy of others who fit more in the facilitator mold, such as Kacie Cassell, the Zips’ all-time assists leader. While at Delaware from 2004-08, she helped the Blue Hens to the 2007 NCAA Tournament while one of her guards, Tyresa Smith, was drafted by the WNBA’s Detroit Shock that year.

Most MAC coaches have a good degree of familiarity with the Horizon League thanks to the overlapping footprint of the two conferences and the frequent non-conference meetings resulting from that proximity, but it’s probably fair to say that Jackson knows more than most. Last season, Akron faced five HL teams, including a ten-day span with consecutive wins over Youngstown State, Robert Morris and Northern Kentucky and, of course, a 76-58 home loss to Cleveland State shortly after that, on December 11th. Furthermore, prominent Zips players Layne Ferrell (Wright State) and Faith Stinson (IUPUI) both transferred from Jackson’s old team to her new conference in the wake of Akron’s coaching change.

“I am incredibly excited to join the Cleveland State women’s basketball program, and so thankful to Coach Kielsmeier for this opportunity,” Jackson said in the school’s release. “Coach Kielsmeier is a proven winner both on and off the court, and I have an immense amount of respect for him and what he has accomplished throughout his career. During the process I was extremely impressed with everything that Cleveland State has to offer, and I can’t wait to get to work for this championship-level program and help impact student-athletes at CSU!”

As for Zoeckler, the holder of two Cleveland State degrees has continued to grow in the program during a tenure that began while an undergraduate student in 2016 (predating even Kielsmeier on the staff), and it’s fair to say that she’s had a hand in just about everything involved with running a college basketball team at one point or another. She settled into a defined position, Video Coordinator, in 2018, before becoming the Vikings’ Director of Basketball Operations in 2021. That latter role (generally abbreviated to “DOBO” within the sport) is infamous for its wide array of critical responsibilities, from travel arrangements to equipment purchasing to coordinating with sponsors and donors to just about anything else that needs to be done.

Eventually, “anything else that needs to be done” came to include coaching and scouting duties, as Zoeckler was an increasingly visible presence for things like the summer recruiting circuit, particularly over the last six weeks with the staff shorthanded. In that light, her transition to full-time coach is a natural one.

“I am beyond excited for the opportunity to serve Cleveland State women’s basketball in a new way and grateful for the trust of Coach Kielsmeier and the staff,” Zoeckler told csuvikings.com. “Cleveland State is home and I want nothing more than to see this program and University continue to succeed. This program has some special young ladies in it, and I can’t wait to continue to grow professionally with a team that holds a special place in my heart.”

The moves leave Zoeckler’s former DOBO post open, though it seems increasingly likely that Special Assistant to the Head Coach Hanna Zerr will ultimately fill that role and move CSU’s lone remaining job vacancy to the special assistant position. Regardless of how those those personnel decisions shake out, the Vikings’ staff is now nearly settled after a chaotic couple months.

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